Beijing 95: A Pale Green
By Cathleen McGuire
I was exhilarated to be among the 40,000 women from around the world who convened in China to network, organize, and return to their home countries with reinvigorated agendas. The event was perhaps the largest gathering of women in history. Since I was not a credentialed NGO delegate, I was unable to participate in the negotiation meetings which produced the "Platform for Action," the official U.N. Conference document. My report is limited to my experience at the NGO Forum on Women. It took place from August 31, 1995 to September 8, 1995 in the town of Huairou (pronounced why row), an hour’s drive from Beijing where the U.N. Conference was convened.
I secured a hotel room in a relaxed rural setting not far from Huairou. When I realized that the Forum activities were spread out over a two- to three-mile radius, I wasted no time in purchasing a spunky Chinese bicycle for forty-five dollars—an expensive commodity for the average worker. Unlike many Forum participants who endured long bus treks in from Beijing, I relished my daily thirty minute bicycle commute. When the conference was over, I bequeathed my bike to the market woman who sold me fruit each morning. She was stunned and insisted on giving me two bagfuls of apples.
Most women at the Forum were jubilant to be in a milieu teeming with so much feminist energy. Yet overall, I was a bit disappointed that the Forum was so narrowly focused on pure politics--U.N. objectives notwithstanding. As a veteran of womyn's festivals, I have become accustomed to female environments where the creative, artistic, and spiritual are given equal weight to the political. The Forum lacked this more balanced approach. I felt that most of the participants had but a glimmer of the transformative possibilities that open up when masses of women explore together the nonlinear sides of our consciousness as well.
Choosing which workshops to attend from among the 3,000-plus options was a daunting task. The politics were hard hitting with especial attention spotlighting issues of violence against women. Dozens of workshops such as the selling of Nepalese girl childs, Zambian battered women shelters, and female genital mutilation in the Arab world explored the harrowing pervasiveness of violence in women’s lives. The global network of activists opposed to trafficking in women likewise constituted a strong vocal presence at the conference.
Conspicuously absent were proponents of that drivel from Camille Paglia et al who characterize prostitution as a viable career "choice" for women and pornography as a liberatory expression of female sexual "agency." Non-Western women at the conference had little use for these theoretical, abstract notions of women’s liberation which are impervious to the sexual exploitation hundreds of thousands of women throughout the world experience on a daily basis.
Much of the coverage of the conference by the mainstream U.S. press was reserved for the event’s two main spoilers: the Chinese government’s "security" measures and the incessant rains. Although the media persisted in spotlighting the authorities’ strong arm tactics (all too often at the expense of covering our actual work), I personally witnessed few infractions, although I heard about a good many. As for the rains, which I dubbed a Chinese water torture, they helped cleanse the air from a suffocating combination of muggy weather and hovering smog. The latter stems from China’s tepid ecological policies in the face of a blitzkrieg of economic development.
In a powerful indictment of violations by governments and multinational corporations against women, indigenous peoples, and the environment, Winona LaDuke's keynote address brought the house down. An Anishinabeg from Minnesota and co-chair of the Indigenous Women's Network, LaDuke stood tall and proud, and courageously named names. In my opinion, her presentation was one of the most important speeches of the entire conference. From a Western perspective, her analysis was classic ecofeminism at its very best.
LaDuke pinpointed the origins of today's problems in the predator/prey relationship industrial society (the predator) has developed with the prey: nature, women, and indigenous peoples. What law, she challenged, gives corporations like Conoco, Shell, Exxon, Diashawa, ITT, Rio Tinto Zinc, and the World Bank the right to decide how land is to be used? "Is that right," she asked, "contained within their wealth, that which was historically acquired immorally, unethically, through colonialism, imperialism and paid for with the lives of millions of people, species of plants and entire ecosystems?"
LaDuke cogently pointed out that, environmentally speaking, "the analysis of North versus South is an erroneous analysis." Uranium mining in the First World presents the same dire consequences for indigenous peoples and Mother Earth as clear cutting rainforests does in the Third World. Along with rampant development, LaDuke also blamed profligate consumerism for much of the degradation of the environment. "Consumption," she declared, "causes the commodification of the sacred, the natural world, cultures, and the commodification of children and women."
LaDuke was one of the few speakers to call the hosts of the conference to task for their reckless disregard of the environment. The audience gasped (and cheered) when she directly criticized the Chinese for their Three Gorges dam project along the Yangtze River. Eclipsing James Bay in Canada, it is the largest hydroelectric construction project in history, destined to uproot over a million people and destroy countless ecosystems.
My biggest disappointment at the conference was the lack of an environmental consciousness on the part of the Forum organizers. Why was this not a "green" conference? Thousands of plastic water bottles were just tossed away with the regular trash, and it didn't seem like any of the vast reams of waste paper were destined for recycling. Was I the only one appalled—rather than awed—when over 20,000 caged doves were released at the opening ceremonies?
Equally disturbing were the hundreds of balloons sent aloft. Weren't the Forum organizers aware that many animals mistake the deflated balloons for food and often choke to death? Also, there were tents galore for special constituencies such as a disabled tent, a peace/anti-nuclear tent, a youth tent, an indigenous tent, a lesbian tent. Why was there no environmental tent?
The most flagrant act of eco-suppression was the treatment of the thoroughly ecofeminist contingent, "Daughters of the Earth: The Environment and Development Collaborative Web." Known as the Web, this coalition of 78 global organizations presented an extraordinary two-day tribunal entitled the Second World Women’s Congress for a Healthy Planet. The Web grew out of the First World Women’s Congress held in Miami in November, 1991. This unique event was spearheaded by the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) under the indefatigable leadership of Bella Abzug.
The 1991 Miami Congress marked a watershed in grassroots feminist politics as women from around the world networked, organized, and collectively devised a strategic plan of action. The resulting document, the "Women’s Action Agenda 21," is a paragon of ecofeminist politics. Its presentation at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 was a historic step forward in solidifying NGOs’ and women’s ability to influence United Nations policymaking.
The Web's tribunal in Huairou was followed by six days of intense plenaries focusing on issues critical to women's empowerment: Trade and the Global Economy, Technology and Communications, Health and Healing, Peace and Militarism, Resistance Strategies and Sustainable Alternatives, and Indigenous Perspectives on Biodiversity. Unlike the official NGO Forum English-only program books, the Web’s program book was printed in five languages. A who’s who of predominantly women of color activists such as Wangari Maathai, Dessima Williams, Miliani Trask, and Urvashi Vaid addressed the panels. The Web's agenda represented a model of international multilateral organizing. So why was it seemingly sabotaged by the Forum organizers?
From the beginning, attending the Web's activities was an exercise in persistence. The Forum planning committee assigned the Web a space that was almost a half-hour walk from the conference grounds. To add insult to injury, the official Forum map misrepresented the Web’s location by several blocks. Then, midway through the conference, their space was yanked out from under them. Instead of one convenient locale, the panels were splintered into several sites.
Amidst the general barrage of posted announcements, it was serendipitous that I spotted one of their hastily made flyers indicating the new locations. The Web's spectacular plenaries should have been a centerpiece of the Forum. The fact that logistics legerdemain undermined the Web’s agenda borders on the scandalous, and speaks volumes about the organizers’ level of eco-consciousness.
Another prime example of their lack of an ecological consciousness pertained to food. This was definitely not a vegetarian conference. Long lines queued before too few stands, most offering some variation of processed food, much of it meat-based. Unless one had a bike (and a surprising number of people did!), the vast distances made it difficult to zip over to Huairou restaurants for a quick, healthy lunch. Worst of all, the Forum organizers saw fit to consign valuable booth space to the granddaddy of junk food, McDonald's.
I smelled that unmistakable odor of charred flesh and congealing grease before I actually saw the tent bearing those notorious golden arches. The Forum organizers were obviously in the dark on this one. Let’s face it: If you're gonna install a McDonald's booth at an international gathering of women, and seat a life-size, plastic Ronald McDonald out front on a bench, you're asking to be zapped! Two women from Earth Island Institute in San Francisco, Emily Miggins and Sarah Chamberlain, initiated a spontaneous protest. They upturned Ronald, smeared him with blood (catsup), and endeavored to educate the gawking customers and passers-by about the evils of Big Mac consumption.
Meanwhile, Vandana Shiva, the renown ecofeminist activist and scientist from India, was conducting a workshop entitled "Globalization, Food Security, Patents and Pesticides." At its conclusion, she rallied women to a march culminating at the McDonald's tent. Her contingent joined a large crowd of spirited protesters who were already at the scene chanting "McDonald's is not an NGO," "Support the Local Economy," and "Monoculture is Bad Food." One placard said it all:
Stop Poisoning Our Bodies!
Stop Clearcutting Our Forests!
Stop Polluting Our Environment!
Stop Concentration Camps for Animals
Stop Cultural Imperialism!
Before an army of cameras, a group of us picked up Ronald McDonald and hurled him in the mud. (A friend in the U.S. saw this fabulous footage on CNN.) The Ronald statue was molded in a seated pose such that when he was face-down his behind stuck ignobly in the air. Vandana Shiva couldn't resist jabbing her umbrella point into his obnoxiously bright yellow buttocks. The crowd cackled uproariously while we high fived each other in glorious triumph. Eventually, three shaken Chinese McDonald's employees rescued Ronald, hauling his battered body away never to surface again for the rest of the conference. [For some first rate McDonald's bashing, check out the folks at McSpotlight .
McDonald's was not the only representative of transnational capitalism at the Forum. Apple and Hewlett Packard logged maximum advertising mileage in exchange for providing Forum participants unlimited access to hundreds of computers as well as free Internet training. Esprit's donation of thousands of tote bags bearing the official NGO logo, however, created uncomfortable public relations problems for Irene Santiago, Executive Director of the Forum.
Activists involved in campaigns against international sweatshops distributed flyers indicting Esprit's custom of underpaying and overworking primarily female laborers. In a puff piece in the Forum's free daily newspaper, Forum ’95, Santiago "strongly refuted the allegations [against Esprit]," claiming the Forum Secretariat "had taken every precaution to ensure that all its sponsors were socially responsible." Her statement had about as much credibility as if she had announced that Ronald McDonald is a card-carrying member of Greenpeace!
Notwithstanding the organizers’ lack of eco-consciousness, Beijing ’95 was a powerful summit that will impact society for years to come. When the next United Nations Conference on Women convenes in 2005, it is imperative that ecofeminist politics be accorded premier status. The domination of women is intricately bound up with the domination of nature. To discount the symbiosis of women’s issues and environmental issues is to handicap sound strategies for global harmony and planetary survival.